Tag: education

complexityeducation & learningscience & technologysocial systemssystems thinking

Order and the Problem of Change

I am Here for the Learning RevolutionThe new academic year is starting and with it the return to teaching.

Teaching brings with it many joys and demands and for those about to enter the teaching profession — at any level — you are undoubtedly going to encounter ‘problem’ students. But these may not be the ones who expect: the ones with serious learning difficulties, absent motivation, or a lack of focus. As much time and energy as these students demand, my experience has been that those who exceed expectations pose more problems than any others.

These are the ones that bring chaos to the order that we expect in ways that, if nurtured, is relentless.

I used to work in a school that had could have been called “Last Chance High”: the place for those youth who were not in custody or care, yet were too disruptive to be in a regular classroom. People would come into our special setting located in the basement of an older abandoned public school (the imagery brings a sad level of irony with it) and describe much of what happened in our school as chaotic or out of control. It might not have been “in control”, but there was much order to it. My colleagues and I were there because we were trained to work with adolescents with ‘special needs’ so for us ‘acting out’ didn’t cause us much difficulty. It was when students gained insight into themselves, found something positive, grabbed hold of it and transformed their behaviour into something much more constructive that things got tough.

For most of these young people they had been given a message that they were bad, inferior, screw ups, unwanted, or any number of negative qualities. Positive comments, when they were offered, were often conditional.

The same situation happens in university — even in graduate school, where students are perhaps more likely to be self-motivated and success oriented. We expect students to want to change the world and become the best scientists and scholars in the world. But we want that ‘best’ to look like something we know (i.e., what we are expecting). For researchers in public health that means publishing papers, going to presentations, using methods and theories that are familiar to us, and doing so within the usual constraints of 4 month courses. And let’s forget about teaching — there aren’t many ways to learn how to do it at most universities.

I have students (and some colleagues) that want to do things different.


  • They want to use video to communicate, take pictures, create blogs and not just text, because they believe in reaching a broader audience than just those with university level education and high literacy rates. They also want to use these media forms as research tools;
  • They want to partner with the community — not in the imaginary way that we often do in many community-based research studies — but in real partnerships. The kind that are messy and unpredictable, like any relationship;
  • They want to put on the conferences, not just attend them;
  • They want classes that aren’t just lectures and PowerPoint. The want to learn by doing;
  • They want to get out more and see the world– and want us faculty and administration to do the same;
  • They want to translate knowledge to everyone, not just in some manner that fits with a theoretical framework for how it should be done, using the tools that might not be convention (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, podcasting)

This is ALL problematic, because there aren’t the structures in place to support this. Right now. This is introducing a little chaos to an environment that is based on a certain order that expects people to innovate in certain ways that follow a linear path. Education is not linear. Learning is a complex adaptive system, yet our education system treats it like a linear, closed system.

This all gives me a headache and creates loads of work for me and my colleagues, just like those kids at the school I taught at years ago.

And just like it did many years ago, these participating in these transformative learning experiences continues to be the best part of teaching.


Bring on the Advil.

complexityeducation & learningeHealthemergencesocial systems

The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book! Learning and Social Media

The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book!

Is this a library or a graveyard? P.S. Where's the power outlet?

Is this a library or a graveyard? P.S. Where's the power outlet?

I found myself in a strange situation the other day: I was listening to a podcast of a panel of Web 2.0 marketers talk about their new books and the power of old media in a new media age. No matter how digital a person is, there is still something to hold on to (literally) with a book.

The panel was hosted by Mitch Joel on his podcast Six Pixels of Separation (which is also the title of his new book), and included folk like marketer Chris Brogan and his co-author Julien Smith and others discussing social media and the perils of sticking with the old ways of marketing, yet highlighting the importance (and honour) of being a New York Times Bestseller (i.e., being recognized by a print newspaper as a top seller of paper books). There’s lots involved in this, but most notably I think it actually reflects what Robert Fulford once called “the triumph of narrative” . This is the appeal of storytelling, depth and coherence in communication — things that most new media does quite badly. Twitter, on a tweet-by-tweet basis is largely incoherent. I might have areas I tweet on and may seek people who tweet about other things, but because not everyone stays ‘on message’ and that people tend to have diverse interests (including Twitter follows), that leaves a mass of information that is left up to the user to make sense of.

Facebook, because it is more closely tied to relationships or ‘friends’ we are familiar with, has at least some over-arching thematic consistency to it, but it still isn’t largely a place to tell or learn from stories.

That’s where books come in. Amazon has released the Kindle, while others are trying to digitize text into books. My colleagues at the Strategic Innovation Lab at the Ontario College of Art & Design are looking at the future of the book, trying to understand how to add the searchable features of a regular webpage and the linking features of hypertext within the codex form of book — electronic or otherwise. Seems like a lot of energy is going into a ‘dead’ technology.

Formal education can be a lot like a book. While anyone can pull together the content within a course — textbooks, slides, recordings – few people will learn in the same way at a distance, in chunks, than being part of a coherent narrative provided through a good course (** i.e., one that teaches people to learn, not shovels content at them). That is no reason not to accumulate chunks. Twitter is great — at what it does. So are books.

So much of our discussions of eHealth, eLearning, and education is that we take an either/or approach. Is distance learning better than face-to-face? Books are dead, all the information is on the Web. These arguments are not helpful. I don’t suspect the book — the paper and cloth codex of today — will last, but I do think the book as a long-form manuscript (digital or otherwise) will survive. Our storytelling — at a distance anyway — depends on it.

Another issue is related to complexity. Complex problems require solutions that can reflect this complexity. Those complex responses are much less likely to emerge through a 140 character tweet. They may emerge over 1000’s of tweets, but without any obvious ways to derive coherence from these without mining the data for it. The book, because of its focus on organizing a lot of information into a narrative is one of the best ways to do this. So while we celebrate the rise of new tools and technologies, let’s also give a cheer to the ones we already have.

Lastly, when I came up with the title for this post, I suspected that I wasn’t the only one who’d uttered such a phrase. So in the name of acknowledging the efforts of others, you can see the many different posts using this title here, here, here, here and here (and many other places).

education & learningpsychologysocial systemssystems sciencesystems thinking

Back to School and the Lesson of Accumulation

For millions of kids and young adults and the many faculty and family members associated with the noble profession of teaching, today is the biggest day of the year. It’s back to school.

School and learning are clearly on the minds of many these days. As I posted last week, there is much to be concerned with how education is (or is not, depending on your point of view) being funded. Yesterday I read an editorial on the CBC’s website from a teacher who pointed to the stress that his profession is under and how it is killing those who choose to remain in it.

“I think that the whole idea of teaching has changed in the last 15 to 20 years,” says Emily Noble, past-president of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

“People are dealing with more high-need students, with more multicultural issues and with no-fail policies.

“Teachers want to make a difference, but the supports are just not there.”

It’s not a particularly rosy time for educators of any stripe.

Anyone who’s been at the head of the classroom (myself included) knows that teaching is as much of a vocation or calling as it is a job. It is not something you do from 9-5 or whatever the set hours are. If you ran an education system on ‘work to rule’ where people did just what their job required of them within normal hours, paid them an hourly wage and had them account for every minute they worked, the system would collapse within weeks. I can’t imagine that there has ever been a greater gap between what teachers actually do and what they are perceived to do by those outside of the profession. As a professor, I routinely shock people who think that I have 4 months off each summer and spend the remaining 8 wandering the hallowed halls of academe ‘thinking big thoughts’, reading books and conversing with grad students in between teaching duties. Between ongoing grant writing, doing research, conference presentations, thesis defences, supervising staff, writing, and preparing our courses for the fall (including adding in the H1N1 provisions this year) summers are anything but idyllic times off. There’s a lot of stress in this job and, as a recent double issue of the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment explored, it manifests itself in many (mostly harmful) ways. Still, most of us do it because we believe in our profession and, mostly, enjoy what we do.

Whether at university or primary or secondary school, teaching as a whole is undergoing a major change. As Smol writes:

There is a general understanding that things “are not the same as they once were.”

Teaching has always been a tough, but rewarding job in part because there’s always new things to learn and we, as humans, are wired for learning. Teaching is also a dynamic profession aimed at supporting this learning, but as Smol and others have written, the changes that are happening in education are great and fast and without the structural supports in place to help these changes take place. I wrote of resliency in my last post, arguing that we’re testing the resilience of our education system with this imbalance between demands and resources. Today I want to focus on another important systems concept: accumulation.

It turns out, people are lousy at understanding how things build up over time. A study by John Sterman from MIT, one of the leading scholars in system dynamics, found that even among his students — some of the best, brightest and well-equipped to handle this topic given that it is part of their studies — most have a poor sense of what accumulation really means. So do educational policy makers I suspect. The reason this is important for education is that as accumulation of stress builds the likelihood of something going amiss increases dramatically. A tipping point, that term popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book by the same name, is an expression of accumulation.

In our case of education, the tipping point could come when people no longer want to become teachers en masse. Or, it becomes nearly impossible to hire good, quality educators for anything other top salaries, which in an age when even the basics aren’t funded, seems unlikely. Or, teachers begin to amass more sick days than ever before (which is already happening) creating disruptions in the classroom. (Note: Remember those days when the substitute teacher came to class? Were those ever days filled with lots of learning and orderly classrooms? Not often. Imagine that on the rise as teachers start to miss days on the job a little more)

The unintended consequences could see parents fleeing the public system of education for private institutions, leaving a growing gap between the education of the haves and have nots  even more than exists today. Another option is that some other market form of education replaces our current system. Among the many scenarios that could play out, most suggest that the system could break. And when systems break suddenly and quickly, the stress increases, which seems a little counterproductive given that it is one of the problems in the first place.

The Arab proverb about ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ comes to mind here. The mistake is thinking that a single straw caused all that damage. It did, but only because of its relationship to all the other straws. Each straw weighs the same and presumably has the same relative impact on the camel. What tipping points show is that, despite this similarity between objects (straws, stressors, whatever…) not all are created equal in terms of their impact. While it is true that each individual object taken on its own is relatively the same, the cumulative impact makes each of them quite different. That ‘last straw’ (which, incidentally, is the name of a great teaching game on the social determinants of health) , has far more influence than any other straw. What we don’t often know is which straw will serve as the ‘last’ one. How resilient is the system? What is its carrying capacity? We don’t know, but by paying attention we can anticipate problems ahead and potentially avoid this last straw scenario and the tipping points that follow.

So as you go back to school, consider bringing something other than just an apple for the teacher.  Perhaps a lesson in accumulation for the principal, school board officials, the public taxpayer, and educational policymakers will do.

education & learningfood systemshealth promotionpsychology

The Food Bank Model of Education and the Tyranny of Resiliency

Teaching the basics

Did this teacher pay for her chalk through bake sales?

This morning’s Globe and Mail introduced me to a new term “The food bank model of education” . Just reading the headline spurred a deep sense of empathy in me and a good idea (proved correct as I read the article) about what that term meant. As you might guess, the analogy of the food bank is one centred on the concept of donations to support those in need. As Wendy Stueck writes, an approach that was once used around fundraising for special events and activities — those ‘extras’ — is now being used to support the foundation of the educational system. It’s no longer about paying for students to go to special exhibit at the major art gallery and more about paying for pencils, pens and paints — the basics.

Big bucks raised by parent groups are becoming more prominent on the Canadian education scene and resulting in gaps between schools backed by well-off, well-educated parents and those in less-affluent communities, says Annie Kidder, president of the Toronto-based advocacy group People for Education.

“Fundraising has always been a feature [of the school system] and it’s not inherently wrong,” Ms. Kidder says, adding that festivals and silent auctions can be fun and boost morale. “The issue now is that parents are becoming the food banks of the education system.”

It’s easy to forget that food banks were temporary measures meant to serve as a stop-gap to serve communities when times were tough and there wasn’t the necessary resources in place to ensure that everyone had access to food when they needed it. Second Harvest in Santa Cruz area, was the United States’ second food bank (first in California), opening in 1972. That’s not long ago. It shouldn’t be around today, but it is. That’s not because they don’t do good work, but rather because unlike other banks, these weren’t meant to last.

However a funny thing happened while people were patching away at food security, these banks started evolving into social education resources that not only provide food, but also learning about food systems and training centres for policy advocates working to address food security issues. The Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto is another great example of this type of transformation in action.

What these groups represent is resiliency in action. Resiliency is the ability of a system to adapt to adversity and capitalize on opportunities to make positive transformation in spite of challenges or catastrophe. It is held up as a positive trait in humans and social systems. One reason is that the world is a dynamic place and change (as much as we resist it) is inevitable. As the memorable quote from Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s bookThe Leopard:  “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”..

But that is the problem here with education and food security. We’ve become really good at adapting. Our educators, our communities are exceptionally resilient, creative and adaptive. As the Globe piece points out, a lot of creative stuff is happening to keep the system moving:

But while the routine may be the same, Ms. Whiteaker and others worry that parent groups face increasing pressure to raise money – a kind of fundraising creep – as school boards across the country tighten their belts in the face of government cutbacks.

“Because of the funding cuts, you are going to see an increased demand for fundraising,” she says. “Because parents want to provide the best for their students – right now. Not by the time the government gets around to increasing the funding for certain areas.”

But this isn’t just belt-tightening. It’s unlikely we’ll see these funds restored anytime soon. Think about it: in North America we just experienced the longest run of economic success and wealth creation than at any time in human history. Yet, food banks and educational erosion has continued and remained ‘reslient’ through all of this. Is this a good thing?

Resiliency is almost always used as a positive trait, because adaptation in systems and psychological terms is healthy. But such demands for adaptation can be excessive and actually weaken the system over time. Resiliency is like an elastic band. It has a lot of give and stretch at the beginning, but as anyone with a well-worn pair of yoga pants can attest, the elasticity starts to dissipate after much use. Systems are the same way. Our educational system or food security systems are highly plastic and those working within them are creative. But at some point that elasticity will fade to the point where, like an elastic band, it will eventually crumble into pieces.

How many bake sales are we away from that happening in our schools?

education & learningsystems science

Doing important things

Last night I attended the closing session of the 27th annual Systems Dynamics Society conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico featuring organizational change leader Peter Senge. Although I had planned to go to the talk originally, I was getting a little drained from all the learning and non-stop activity since arriving on Saturday and thought I’d go to Santa Fe for the day. Santa Fe is beautiful and has more art galleries than any city in the U.S. (so I am told) and is also the home of the world’s premiere think tank on complexity science, the Santa Fe Institute.

However, ‘fate intervened’ and every single car was rented in the city. We also got a wicked thunderstorm in the afternoon. Somehow, things worked out to keep me in town and I am so glad I was here. The talk — a conversation really — was truly inspiring. It wasn’t because of any particular oratory that Peter or the other conversants delivered or its brilliance in delivery (although it was enjoyable to be a part of). It was how it tapped into what I might call the soul of systems thinking and modeling. Systems dynamics modeling is a pretty esoteric field to those not familiar with it. Few people jump up and down at the thought of a model being created. It feels academic, perhaps because it sometimes is.

Yet, they offer us a powerful way to converse, particularly when they are developed in a participatory way. They provide a means to help people see the bigger picture and collaborate on some of the big problems in life, the problems that we NEED to work on if our species is to survive and indeed, if many of the other species on the planet will survive. Climate change was indeed one of the big issues under discussion, not only because it is something that systems dynamics is actively involved in, but because it is one of the grand challenges that we as a society need to bring systems science to so desperately.

The bottom line is that we need to create the space to reflect in our work. That’s what I hoped this blog would achieve for me. But its something we don’t do much of, and for the young professors and students in the audience there was some real concern about how to do this when it is so rarely valued by our environments, yet ironically is one of the tools that creates more value in our work than anything.

It was a special evening and I came away with some wonderful quotes that I scribbled in my notebook that I wanted to share:

“You only have so much time on this earth. Why would you spend your days doing anything but the most important thing you can do?” — Jay Forrester

“Climate change is a symptom; how we live is the problem. If want change, we need to focus on the problem” – Peter Senge

” The gift of climate change is that we all have to work together, otherwise it is unsolvable” — Peter Senge

“It is only through reflection that we escape our history”

Indeed, some words to reflect upon.